NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship: Will warming-induced increases in organic matter decomposition in soil enhance rates of 21st-century climate change?

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

Streatham Campus, Exeter, Devon

Main supervisor: Dr Iain Hartley (Geography, Streatham Campus)

Terrestrial ecosystems are currently reducing the rate of climate change by absorbing over one quarter of the carbon dioxide humanity releases to the atmosphere each year. The recent UN Paris Climate Change agreement makes specific reference to this, with agreed mitigation strategies relying on this sequestration continuing. However, as the world warms, rates of decomposition of the organic matter in soils may start to increase. With this decomposition releasing five times as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as fossil fuel burning, there are concerns that the ability of terrestrial ecosystems to continue absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere may decline. This would increase the likelihood of society experiencing the most dangerous effects of climate change.

There remains, however, considerable uncertainty regarding whether decomposer microorganisms will indeed increase their activity at higher temperatures. It has been suggested that microbes could adapt to warming in a way that would eliminate the potential increase in decomposition rates. On the other hand, some recent studies have suggested that microbial activity may be even more sensitive to changes in temperature than previously thought.

This controversy is caused by studies generally looking at the activity of the whole microbial community, making it difficult to identify the mechanisms underlying any responses observed. This PhD will address this by focusing on wood decomposition and the activity of key groups of fungi. By focusing on a particular component of the soil microbial community and the decomposition of a single type of material (wood), the aim is to develop mechanistic understanding that can be used to better predict global warming effects on carbon dioxide release from terrestrial ecosystems.

The project will utilise a novel methodology (Karhu et al., 2014) and microcosm design (A'Bear et al. 2012) that will allow fungal community responses to be investigated in detail. There is the potential for carrying out experiments both in the field and the laboratory, and the opportunity for training in a wide range of carbon cycle and microbial ecology techniques. The studentship has strong potential for generating high-impact publications relevant to predicting future rates of climate change.

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

This is one of a number of studentships that encompass the breadth of earth and environmental sciences are being offered to start in September 2017 at Exeter. The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,296 per annum for 2016-2017, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.

See please for more details on how to apply.

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